For two years, Sean Harris was of the opinion that a wind-farm developer had given him the runaround.
He and his family were experiencing problems with the neighbouring wind farm in Ballyduff, Co Waterford.
There was the noise, incessant at times. There was the siting of at least one of the 11 turbines, which he was convinced was closer to his boundary than stipulated in the planning permission. And there was something about the size of the damn things. The rotating blades just looked too big.
As it was to turn out, Mr Harris and his neighbour, Ronald Krikke, were onto something.
The wind farm was not built as per the specific planning permission granted by An Board Pleanála. However, the developer was not to blame. For it would emerge, at the end of a dragged out process in which the pair felt they were really being given the runarourd, that the local authority had actually given the nod to the developer without reference to An Bord Pleanála or, allegedly, the planning file.
Effectively, Waterford City and County Council gave the go-ahead for the developer to install larger blades than allowed by the planning board. And then, when Mr Harris and Mr Krikke began making complaints, the council played dumb.
Only for the persistence of those who believed they were adversely impacted by the wind farm, the anomalies would never have seen the light of day. Now An Bord Pleanála is examining whether something serious has occurred and if the wind farm should be allowed to continue in business.
Barnafaddock wind farm is located in mountains above Ballyduff Upper, a picturesque village nestled at the foot of the Knockmealdowns in west Waterford.
The initial plan was for 32 turbines but, in 2013, An Bord Pleanála granted permission for 12. In the end, only 11 were constructed.
The wind farm was developed by a company called Barnafaddock Sustainable Electricity Ltd. However, by the time construction began in 2014, it had been sold to Element Power, which specialises in renewable energy.
In February 2014, during the construction phase, Element Power sold Barnafaddock to US giant GE. It completed the construction phase and sold the farm on again last year, this time to Blackrock, a joint venture between a major US fund and Irish business people.
In an environment where subsidies are plentiful, and the landscape changing rapidly, the flipping of wind farms is not uncommon.
Three of the turbines were located on lands owned by An Coillte. These were permitted to have a blade span of 130m.
The eight located on private lands were to have blades spans of 90m. Once the farm became operational in 2015, some locals began to notice the imposition of the noise in particular.
A condition of the planning permission was that a noise monitoring report would have to be conducted within a year of operation commencing.
GE hired reputable engineering consultant Fehily Timoney. The survey was carried out between March and May 2016, and the report found that the noise limits were largely in line with design criteria.
Some of the locals living next to the turbines found this difficult to believe. Roland Krikke, a Dutchman who has been living in Ballyduff Upper for 13 years, began investigating.
He commissioned his own noise report. “That found that at a number of different moments the noise level exceeded what is allowable,” he says.
The work of consultants often differs, but Mr Krikke also made a startling discovery. He found that despite planning permission having been granted for turbines with a 90m diameter for eight of the 11 turbines, there was no mention anywhere of the specific model that was to be used at Ballyduff.
“It wasn’t even in the environmental impact statement,” he told the Irish Examiner. “Or the planning permission and I talked to the neighbours and nobody seemed to know what was going on.”
Mr Krikke got his hands on the Fehily Timoney report into the noise and saw a reference to the GE 2.85-103 model. Further research led to the discovery that this was a model that, as it says on the tin, includes a blade diameter of 103m.
This is 15% bigger than the 90m allowed for, with the potential to generate a lot more energy. It also has the potential to generate a lot more noise, and is certainly not what the planning authority gave permission for.
Mr Krikke decided to check for himself. Armed with a range finder, which can measure distances, he approached the turbines one evening when they were turned off.
The results, he says, were that the one he measured showed up a diameter of over 100m. The only available model that could answer for that length is the 103m model, previously advertised by GE.
Krikke had already been in correspondence with Waterford City and County Council over what he saw as the noise problem. On September 20, 2016, he received a reply to an email about whether the farm had been built as per planning permission.
“There have been no agreements between the wind farm and the council that constitute an aberration from An Bord Pleanála planning conditions,” read the mail from the council’s planning office.
Now, he informed it of this new discovery. When he received no response initially, he persisted with it.
“The shocking main issue here is that the 13m increase (15%) in blade diameter is a big deviation from the planning conditions that has not been signalled by your office, and whereupon no action has been taken,” he wrote.
“Whatever the reasoning for not doing so, it should be remedied and acted upon immediately by your office. Hence I request that your office will do an immediate check on the compliance regarding the material conditions for blade diameter.”
Eventually, Waterford City and County Council said it would investigate. The council’s first port of call, it told Mr Krikke, would be to check with the developer.
Much later, Mr Krikke and Mr Harris were to discover there was no need to check with the developer, as the council was well aware of the size of the blades on the turbine. The initial response of the council to the residents — and later, on foot of inquiries, to this newspaper — was to suggest the noise monitoring report had been misinterpreted.
“The developer was permitted to construct three turbines with a rotor diameter of 103m and eight turbines at 90m. A noise monitoring survey was conditioned in relation to the three turbines of 103m,” the council told this newspaper in a statement September 2017.
This inferred the model referenced in the noise monitoring report was applicable only to three turbines which had been granted permission for 103m diameter blades.
Eventually, earlier this year, nearly a year after first being informed of the problem, the council conducted a physical review of the site.
It found that in relation to the eight turbines, “permitted blade diameter 90m; actual blade diameter 103m”. The finding confirmed what the residents had alleged. It conceded the siting of one of the turbines was nearer Sean Harris’s land as a result of the longer blade size.
Thereafter the council decided to refer the matter to An Bord Pleanála under what is known as a section 5. This is a provision under the Planning and Development Act 2000 that allows anybody to request whether a development is exempted under the meaning of the Act.
The submission from Fehily Timoney was illuminating with regard to what had occurred in Barnafaddock wind farm. The submission states that: “The deviations as described have been brought to the attention of the planning authority by the residents in the area over the last two years.
“In particular, the issue of the increased blade length has been brought to its attention in the last year.”
Fehily Timoney disagreed with this vehemently, saying: “The above statement may give the incorrect impression that Waterford City and County Council was not aware of the change in blade length before 2016. We refer to the compliance response of 2013 in which Waterford City and County Council confirmed firstly that they noted the developer’s intent to install a 103m diameter turbine and secondly that WCCC agreed that same was in compliance with the 2011 permission.”
In other words, the council gave the go-ahead for the longer blade. This was in contravention of the permission granted by An Bord Pleanála. The council’s position is apparently that the tip height — the total height of the tip at the vertical — is still 125m. This is unclear.
When contacted by An Bord Pleanála to respond to the Fehily Timoney claim, the council said it had no further comment to make on that aspect of the submission.
When contacted by the Irish Examiner, the council’s response (see below) was that it would not be commenting ahead of any ruling on the section 5 application.
Questions remain irrespective of An Bord Pleanála’s ruling.
Why, when the residents first contacted the council in 2016, were they not informed of the change to blade size?
Why, if it is the case, was the agreement between the council and the developer not recorded on the planning file?
Why were the responses to both the residents and this newspaper last week couched in terms that suggested a misunderstanding was the answer to the discrepancies?
Where does this leave local residents who been adversely and unfairly impacted by the wind farm?
A query to Fehily Timoney about its submission to An Bord Pleanála did not receive any reply.
Council plays the waiting game
The approach of Waterford City and County Council appears to have been a strategy of delay and deflect rather than answering queries that are not just legitimate but imperative to confidence in the operation of wind farms.
On August 25, 2017, this newspaper submitted a number of questions to the council about the residents’ concerns and what had arisen from investigations. By then, the council had been aware of concerns about the blade diameter since the previous April.
The email sent to the council had the following text:
“Allegations have been made from local people that the size of the blades on the wind turbines exceeds that for which planning permission was granted. The blades are alleged to have a span of 103m while permission was granted for eight of the eleven turbines for a span of 90m. Waterford City and County Council has been in possession of this allegation since last April.
There was no response.
I emailed again on August 28, enquiring as to when a response might be expected. A reply said September 4.
When I questioned the delay, the response read: “I’m sorry it can’t be earlier but the query crosses a number of sections and is complex in nature.”
The reader can make up their own mind as to how complex the query was.
Come September 4, I mailed to inquire what time I could expect a response. No reply. A statement, which only partially addressed the query, was issued another week later on September 10.
This year, 12 months and a lot of discovery later, an email was sent to Waterford City and County Council on September 6 with a list of questions about where things are at now, including:
On August 25, 2017, I emailed the council with a series of questions on this issue and received a reply on September 10. Nowhere in that reply was there an acknowledgement the council was aware that the blades which had permission for a 90m diameter were in fact 103m. In fact, the impression from the reply was that the council would check out the matter with the developer. Why was I, as a member of the public and the media, misled in this manner?
The reply, on September 14, nearly two weeks later, was that the council would not be in a position to comment while the section 5 process was ongoing.
One question related to the absence from the planning file of any correspondence in which the council gave the developer go-ahead for the larger blade diameter turbine. This was referenced by Fehily Timoney in its section 5 submission.
According to the council, all correspondence was on the planning file.
Ronald Krikke, the local who uncovered the major discrepancies, disputes this.
“We never came across that,” he says.
“Instead they said they had to check with the developer, but there would have been no need for that if the correspondence was in the file. They would have known that the developer had told them exactly what size turbines they were building.”
“The developer was permitted to construct three turbines with a rotor diameter of 103m and eight turbines at 90m. A noise-monitoring survey was conditioned in relation to the three turbines of 103m diameter.
“The noise-monitoring survey was carried out. Subsequent to this, we received a complaint about the conditions under which the noise monitoring was undertaken. As a result of which we sought clarification from the noise monitoring consultant, and the council is now satisfied that the noise survey report has been undertaken in accordance with best practice guidelines and is in accordance with the condition of planning permission.
“In terms of your general query, where a developer is not in compliance with planning, enforcement action can be taken.
“In terms of rates income, the wind farm is currently undergoing a valuation process. Council is not in receipt of rates in respect of the wind farm.”
“Correspondence in relation to the blade diameter is on the public planning file.
“A meeting was held with local residents on May 10 last where a full and frank discussion took place on all matters of concern for the residents and it was agreed that the best course of action was to seek a section 5 Determination from An Bord Pleanála to determine whether the changes were material to that granted planning permission.
“Upon receipt of the determination from the board, the planning authority will review the position and decide on the appropriate action to be taken as necessary.
“The planning authority can neither speculate on nor preempt the determination of An Bord Pleanála. So as not to prejudice any further process, the planning authority is constrained in discussing live matters which are currently under review in any greater detail until An Bord Pleanála determination has been issued.
“The planning authority will engage further with the community at that stage.”